Saturday, September 13, 2008

Riga, the Hospital, the Gulags and Kandava

So many things have happened in the last week. I have met with relatives in a Soviet housing complex, have semi-mastered the trolley bus and tram system, have travelled to a small village in Western Latvia by bus, and am now the proud possessor of a renewed Latvian passport which makes me an official member of the European Union. Along the way I’ve met people who have been extraordinarily helpful, and others who have been extraordinarily rude. I have also completely fallen in love with the architecture of Riga – the mixture of old and new, crumbling and renovated, art nouveau and traditional wooden buildings, takes my breath away. Old Riga hugs the river Dauguva. It is a maze of cobbled stone streets and 13th and 14th century buildings that open onto public squares filled with outdoor bars, cafes and souvenir stalls selling amber jewellery and hand-knitted socks and mittens. From the old city the rest of Riga extends out beyond a bank of beautiful parklands along grand boulevards lined predominantly with art nouveau buildings, but every now and then you come across traditional old wooden houses, some completely neglected and other very beautifully renovated. Of course, there are vestiges of the Soviet era everywhere. It is all so completely different from humble Hobart and I can see that my love for this place is tainted with a bad case of fascination with ‘the other’ (even though I technically belong to that ‘other’). Part of me wants to live here because it is so very aesthetically compelling - but another part of me acknowledges that the reality of living here from day to day may not be so easy.

A few days ago I visit Riga’s First Hospital, which is where my mother, Mirdza Berziņš, was born in 1927. The hospital was originally established in 1803, but the rather gothic main building, which is now the emergency entrance, was built in 1873.

I take photos from the outside and then ask the guard if I can take a photo of the interior. He says I need permission and leads me up the stairs to the management offices - I feel a bit like a naughty schoolgirl being taken to the headmaster’s office. I am introduced to Iveta, the PR Manager, who is absolutely delighted to meet me. She sits me down, makes me coffee, gives me a book of Latvian poetry as a gift and asks me why I am interested in the hospital. We talk for over half an hour, exchanging life stories, star signs, and views on what it is like to be a woman in the world today. We discover that both of us were born in 1954, only a few days apart. I am not able to take photos inside the hospital, but Iveta showed me a small museum in the bowels of the building where there is a photo of the hospital’s nursery in the 1920s or 30s. We then go outside and walk through the hospital complex and she shows me the building where my mother would have been born. Iveta gives me permission to return at any time to take more photos. We have been emailing each other since our meeting.

* * *

When I was in Riga in December 2001, I was taken to the First Hospital by ambulance from the Hotel Latvia. I was having trouble swallowing and my breathing would often stop for a brief period of time when I ate solid food. I was becoming increasingly distressed by my symptoms and after an episode in the Hotel’s café, asked if there was a doctor in the house. They called an ambulance and it was suggested I see a specialist at the hospital. My niece, Antra, accompanied me for moral support. I vaguely remember the interior of the ambulance – it was dark and the equipment looked dated and unfamiliar.

When I arrived at the Hospital and was led inside, I felt as if I had entered a 1940s black and white movie. There was a lone woman sitting at the reception desk, bathed in a dim wash of yellowish light. A short woman with red hair led Antra and I down a long corridor. She wore a white lab coat and knee length leather boots and there was an almost military precision in her stride. In the distance ahead, I could see someone standing in the otherwise empty corridor, looking in our direction. As we approached, the person's face became visible – it was lobster red and extremely swollen, the eyes mere slits, the skin shiny and peeling in places. Our eyes met briefly. As we progressed down the corridor a voice inside my head began repeating 'Take the first available flight to London if you have to have a procedure, take the first available flight to London…'

At the end of the corridor, Antra was made to wait outside while I was led into an examination room. The red-haired woman with the boots instructed to me take off my coat and pointed to a seat against the wall next to a trolley of medical instruments. There was a small Christmas tree covered in decorations on a table at one end of the room and traditional straw mobiles hung over the large examination table in the centre. The woman sat down at a table opposite me, opened a large ledger book, picked up a pen, and held it poised over the page, ready to write. She maintained this position without moving. Clearly, she was not the specialist.

After 5 minutes or so of waiting, the ambulance officer arrived and said, ‘Well, you must be feeling much better now that you are here, in the hospital. The specialist will be here shortly – he’s seeing someone in the other building who is bleeding profusely.’ When the doctor arrived he burst into the room in a great flurry wearing a full length padded floral dressing gown and a fur hat. I immediately thought of Groucho Marx. He removed his outfit and discussed my case with the ambulance driver and the red-haired assistant. They seemed more interested in the fact that I could speak Latvian and lived in Australia, rather than the nature of my condition. Eventually I was examined. The specialist asked me to open my mouth very wide and depressed my tongue with a wooden paddle. Leaning over his shoulder, also staring down my throat, were the ambulance officer and the assistant. The specialist stood back for a moment, then moved his face very close to mine and said, in a quite loud voice, ‘Completely healthy woman, completely healthy woman, completely healthy woman.’

‘So why am I having trouble swallowing?’ I asked. ‘It’s your nerves,’ he said. He prescribed a herbal tea, donned his floral padded dressing-gown and hat again, and left. I drank the herbal tea, but the problem didn’t ease. I ended up seeing a Harley Street specialist in London who explained the how the dysphagia had started and concurred that there was actually nothing wrong with me – it would just take me time to learn how to swallow properly again. The condition eventually passed after I finished my PhD.

* * *

The next day I collect my renewed passport, dutifully sitting with others in a waiting room until my number is shown on a digital screen. The girl who stamps my papers and hands the passport over to me is young and attractive, probably in her twenties, but she is extremely dour and serious. I ask her if that’s all there is to it, and she almost smiles back at me. As I leave the building I am surprised at how elated I feel about new the passport and wish I could celebrate with someone. I end up going to Latvian Art Academy, which is just nearby, where I have a strong black coffee in their rather dingy underground café and then visit an exhibition by a Japanese architect in a massive upstairs gallery.

Afterwards I buy seven yellow roses from the flower stalls near the freedom monument and catch trolley bus number 17 to Unijas Street, where my mother’s cousin, Jānis Petersons lives. It’s about 20 minutes or so out of Riga’s centre, in a Soviet housing area. Anna, Jānis’s partner, meets me at the trolley bus stop and we walk to their building. I would never have found it without her. Last time I was here all the buildings looked exactly the same because everything was covered in snow. This time, it is green and lush and Anna shows me the back of her building where her balcony is visible, covered in flowering pot plants. We walk up four flights of stairs to the apartment. The stairwell is dank and badly in need of painting, and the concrete stairs are cracked and dirty, but the flat itself is warm and cheery, decorated with Anna’s handcrafts. The living room has a huge wall unit filled with knick knacks, a couch, a wardrobe, a small table covered with plants, and a big wide screen television.

Jānis greets me and I present him with a bottle of Asti Spumante. We drink instant coffee and eat cake. Jānis makes his drink with about five grains of granulated coffee and 3 spoons of sugar. We talk and talk, reminiscing about the time I was here with Gerard in 1992. Anna shows me photo albums of her grandchildren in America - and then Jānis tells me about his time in the gulags. I had no idea that he had spent three years in gulags in Azerbaijan – for some reason I always thought he had been sent to Siberia. I have trouble understanding everything he says, because he speaks very quickly and uses words I am not familiar with. In a way, this is a blessing, because I don’t think I want to know all the details. He tells me that he progressed through a range of labour camps, working his way up to the salt mines in Baku, which were the best place to be because at least there you were outside in the fresh air. Food rations were one cup of gruel in the morning and 250 grams of bread per day. Fifty to sixty men slept in one small room, not much bigger than Jānis’s own living room, on wooden sleeping racks that lined the walls.

There must have been opportunities to do extra work and earn extra money while in the gulags and Jānis tells the story of agreeing to build a stone fence for an Azerbaijani for a specified fee. Jānis had never built such a fence before, (of course, he didn’t tell his client this) but subcontracts a team of other inmates who have some knowledge of building stone walls. They construct the fence to the specified dimensions and the Azerbaijani is very pleased with the result. A few days later, however, he approaches Jānis and says he has decided he would like the fence to be even higher. Jānis agrees – no problem, he can make the fence higher. He consults his wall making team again but they say if the fence is made higher, it will be unstable. Nevertheless, they build the wall higher, the Azerbaijani is happy and Jānis gets paid. A few days later, he hears an almighty crash and finds out that the entire fence has collapsed into rubble.

Jānis has many more stories to tell but I have had enough for this visit. Anna walks me back to the trolley bus stop and we agree to meet again soon.

The next day I make my first big trip out of Riga and catch the bus to Kandava, a small village in Kurzeme, or western Latvia. My mother spent several years living on a huge estate about five kilometres from the centre of Kandava, moving there in 1932, when she was five years old. The property was owned by Latvian millionaire newspaper mogul, Antons Benjamins, who developed it into a model estate. He employed staff to work in the stables, the dairy, the gardens and the hothouses. My grandfather looked after the horses, and I think my grandmother worked in the gardens. My mother remembers her time there with great fondness. Her family was provided with a two roomed apartment that was completely white – white walls, white furniture, even a white stove in the kitchen. It was here that she tasted grapes for the very first time in her life. It was also here that she first used an indoor flushing toilet. There were not many children on the estate, but my mother remembers often inviting them all to her apartment, where they played games and made a big mess eating swedes by scraping at the sweet flesh with spoons. She also played in the hothouses, using seedling boxes as toy boats. I’m not sure what the estate was used for during the Soviet era, but today it has been reclaimed by descendants of Antons and Emilija Benjamins and is available for hire for wedding receptions, conferences and special events. The tourist bureau in Riga told me it is open to the public and has a small museum about the estate’s history. Naturally, I am very keen to make a visit.

The image shows Kandava Sunday School in 1936. My mother is third from the left in the front row. Her brother, Gunars, is second from the left.

It is cold and rainy when I arrive in Kandava - not a heavy rain, but a light, persistent drizzle. I wish I had worn warmer clothes. I walk up a hill toward the town centre. This is a very small village, with old stone buildings and a few wooden houses. There is a café and hotel which has recently been refurbished, and I go there for coffee. The girl behind the counter is very friendly and tells me the tourist bureau is back down at the bottom of the hill I just climbed. I ask her the best way to get to the Benjamin Estate and she says the only way is by taxi. She phones several times for me, but the taxi driver seems to be unavailable. I leave for the tourist bureau and the girl in the café tells me to come back if I have no luck there – she may be able to find someone who can drive me there.

The tourist bureau officer, Ilze, is equally friendly and helpful. She too, is unable to contact the one and only taxi driver in Kandava, who is normally parked outside the bureau, waiting for potential business. She then arranges for me to visit the museum, which holds information about the Benjamin Estate. On the way, several people give me directions, one even stopping his car, winding down the window and explaining how to get there. I feel as though everyone in Kandava knows where I am going.

The museum is a large freestanding brick building at the top of a hill with a dimly lit double entrance. There are no exhibits to speak of – just some Soviet memorabilia in a back room which I discover later on my way to the toilet.

The extremely helpful museum officer is expecting me and has taken out a pile of folders about the Benjamin Estate. I am really delighted – there are photos of the property in the 1920s and 30s, including members of the Benjamin family, the main house from various perspectives, what I assume might be the stables, and the hothouses. Antons and Emilija Benjamins were great philanthropists. There are copies of old newspaper articles about them and also more recent ones that feature their descendants returning to Latvia to reclaim their property after the end of Soviet rule. I take photos of the documents and discuss them with the museum officer. She kindly phones the Benjamin Estate for me, only to find that it is not possible to visit today because the housekeeper is out of Kandava. It seems I am just not meant to see the estate in person today.

I have lunch back in the village and then wander around Kandava for a while. I climb up the hill to visit the old Lutheran church, built in 1736, to see its baroque wooden carvings, but the doors are locked despite the sign that says it is open until 4pm. Back down in the village, in the street that leads towards the gallery and cultural centre, there is a very poignant sign outside one of the buildings that says ‘New York’. It’s a vertical light box, white with blue lettering on one side, blue with white lettering on the other. The shop sells jeans and other contemporary clothing but it’s closed, as too are the gallery and cultural centre.

I return to the tourist bureau, where Ilze makes me coffee and miraculously manages to get the housekeeper of the estate on the phone. I arrange to visit next Wednesday at 1pm, but the negotiations are laboured. Is it possible to visit the estate? It is possible. When could I visit? Not today and not tomorrow. Could I visit next week then? I suppose so. Which day would be convenient? You can’t visit in the morning. Ok, I’ll come in the afternoon, but which day would be suitable? Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday? You can come on Wednesday. Great, I’ll come on Wednesday – what time? Not in the morning, only in the afternoon. Ok, what time – 2pm, 3pm? No, come at 1pm, I have a tourist group coming then. I wonder why she didn’t suggest this right at the beginning!

Ilze gathers information for me about the other places I will be visiting in Latvia and then I catch the bus back to Riga.


a said...

HHHHiiiii...thanks again for epic tale...yes the buildings the buildings they are a comfort in their containment of so much history...I can feel why you would like to stay among them...going back one entry (each one is a new one)I am glad we don't have those locked rooms here...guess who'd be a bit pale by now?! axo

Kim said...

So happy I came across your article and childrens great-great grandfather was Antons Benjamins. I am making a family history book for them, and this was very helpful. Thank you....

Brigita Ozolins said...

I'm so pleased you found the post useful, Kim! I also wrote another where I revisit Kandava and the Benjamin estate that you may find of interest. All the best with your family history. If you publish it, I would love to find out more. Your family's history plays a significant role in understanding the history of Latvia during the first half of last century.